The ancient tale of the wise men feeling different parts of an elephant and being at a loss for how best to describe it could be applied to the Belt and Road plan, China’s current signature foreign policy initiative. The novelty of having China propose something as grand and all-encompassing in the first place has itself attracted much attention.
Powers like the United States and the EU have been demanding for years that an increasingly economically powerful China state its posture on its global aspirations more clearly; China has now answered. The problem is that no one quite knows what the answer means.
The “Belt and Road Initiative” is certainly not a policy. It has no normative aspirations, nor any prescriptive shape. It is, instead, an invitation for the rest of the world to think more about how engaging with China might help its own plans for growth and development. This is reasonable enough. More than 120 countries have China as their chief trading partner. Trying to do more with China than just import and export would be good for them. Part of the aim of the initiative therefore is to make for a more diverse mode of interaction with the world’s second largest economy.
WATCH: China’s Belt and Road Initiative
It is presumably this aim that will be thought about most at the huge summit held in Beijing on Sunday and Monday to unpack a bit more what the Belt and Road Initiative means. Delegations from the approximately sixty plus countries which are most closely associated with the idea will travel to Beijing to seek some kind of enlightenment about what – after all the grand rhetoric and the bold new narratives being announced by various people from China – the initiative practically means. In the famous words of a US presidential election advert attacking an opponent for being too vague on their plans of what they would do once elected: where’s the meat?
For Britain, the position is even more complex. It is not part of the core region of interest. It cannot even claim to be a member of the peripheral zones – the East European 16, for instance, who all make claims to being some kind of terminus for what was once called the New Silk Road. Nor can it say it is on the maritime belt. That arches down from China deep into the Indian and Pacific oceans. But it does not extend beyond there.
Despite this, interest in Britain on what the initiative might bring in terms of finance, investment and other knock-on opportunities is high. This is partly through the groundwork laid by the doomed administration of David Cameron, whose Chancellor George Osborne was something of a Sinophile, and who created the idea of a new “golden age” for Britain-China relations around 2015. The Belt and Road idea therefore fell from a clear blue sky onto fallow ground in Britain. It was the sort of Beijing-originated idea that was almost inevitably going to be warmly embraced.
The unexpected outcome of the June referendum last year by Britain to leave the EU has changed the detail, but not the core focus, of why the Belt and Road Initiative is still of high interest to British businesspeople and government officials. There is a very simple reason for this. With the real possibility that Britain will walk away from its chief trading and business partner – the common market provided by the other 27 member states who will remain in the EU – the hunt is on for new potential partners to replace at least some of the growth that came from more traditional markets.
China offers tantalising potential in this space. In the past, it has enjoyed a large trade surplus with Britain. Investment has been adequate, but hardly spectacular. But as the world’s second biggest economy, now undergoing a transition to a service sector oriented economy, and one that has a clear interest in finance, one of Britain’s great strengths, suddenly what was once a vague dream about a better quality economic link with China becomes more likely. There is the imperative on the British side, and the pathway through the Belt and Road idea. Surely this augurs well for Britain to improve and optimise its links with China, and go from hopeful words to action?
The philosopher Hegel said that understanding starts on the ledge. In moments of crisis, things start to have to make sense. For a long time, Britain’s attitude towards China has been characterised as haughty, complacent, and mostly focussed on cleaning up the residue of history. But finally, Britain has no option but to think about China in a very different way – as a place it has no choice but to do better at trading with, gaining market entry to, and seeking good quality investment. This is worthy stuff. The Belt and Road Initiative is a nice enough story to try to wrap all this in.
The question is only whether things will happen quickly enough for the increasingly urgent and hungry appetite of Britain. It lacks real knowledge about how to engage with China, and needs to fundamentally change its attitude and mindset. But, once Brexit happens, it has no choice. Ironically, while exiting the EU might be the worst foreign policy decision Britain has made in modern times, as far as energising engagement with China goes, it might be for the best. ■
Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College London